Project title: Walking the Landscape
Funder: Cambridge University Library Research Growth Network
Collaborators: Cambridge Digital Humanities, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University Library
Dates: September 2021–August 2022
John Constable is one of the most celebrated and widely studied artists of the 19th century. He was born and brought up on the Suffolk-Essex border and, until he was 22, worked in his father’s thriving milling, grain-merchant firm. Constable’s connection with the countryside, his intimate familiarity with rural life, is evident in his paintings, drawings, and prints, in his choice of subjects and his attentive observation of the smallest detail of the natural world.
When Constable spoke and wrote on the topic of ‘landscape’ later in life, he used many of these East-Anglian scenes in an all-encompassing way, to ‘characterise the scenery of England’, but what did that mean? How much has the landscape changed and how recognizable are the same views today? How can walking with Constable help us understand his work, and what he was doing?
This project uses digital technologies to take prints locked in a museum back into the landscape which made them, which represents them, and of which they are part. Using an app enabling us to pinpoint and ‘see’ various Constable compositions we will curate a series of public walks in landscapes Constable sketched, documenting them to produce, as a form of public writing and as a walking diary.
We are interested in what happens when we walk in one landscape but also see another, one produced by Constable in another century. Amongst our questions are what kind of engagement with the work this produces. Walking with Constable enables a form of slow looking – very different from a typical gallery experience.
Our walks might highlight change and development of the landscape – and foreground issues of industrialisation present in Constable’s work. It might change the forms or modes of attention awarded to the prints – from ‘looking at’ to ‘walking with’. It asks us how we can re-think the relationship of the work to the land. Finally, how can we bring in various different kinds of expertise – local, specialist, based on knowing the walk, or knowing the work, to inform our slow viewing?
We are also interested in exploring how to document a shared experience of viewing and engaging with the prints in this way. How can we capture what it feels like to walk with Constable, how can we express the perceptions, experiences or connections it produces for each of us, and produce a form of public writing – perhaps a diary.
Finally want to explore both how much technology is needed to enable the walk and how little – how much augmentation does it take to add to the walking experience, and how might we supplement it – in this case via accompanying aerial photography, and via the use of embedded images to over-lay historical and ‘imaginary’ landscapes to provide new perspectives on time, change, distance and experience.
Underpinning our inquiry are a series of more general questions:
- How – and in what ways – can we use digital technologies to engage with publics in ways that route around standard ‘virtual’ gallery or museum formats.
- How – and in what ways – can we document these engagements in compelling and accessible ways.
- How can we build on this project to inaugurate new forms of engagement with publics around other works and perhaps on a larger scale.
Dr Elenor Ling, Curator, Fitzwilliam Museum
Professor Caroline Bassett, Director, Cambridge Digital Humanities